ARTICLE

What Does the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mean to You?

For many educators, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination prompted reflection on how he and the causes he championed continue to shape our lives.
Photo from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Last week we posed this question to the TT community: Which of the causes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized and marched for still affect your students today? The top five answers were ending racial violence (86 percent); ending poverty (80 percent); social welfare (76 percent); desegregation (63 percent); and voting rights (62 percent). 

The message was clear: Dr. King's work is unfinished, and the issues he marched for are still affecting your students and you. 

And it's not just the causes he fought for—Dr. King himself is important to you. When we asked you to share how he influenced you and your teaching, more than 600 of you had a lot to say.

 

Many of you reflected on how Dr. King's words and messages found their way into your classrooms.

"So many of his teachings have influenced my work with English language learners," said one anonymous respondent. "For example, I use the essay 'What Is Your Life's Blueprint?' with both my middle school and high school students as a close read for setting goals and providing students with a background into Dr. King's belief in the power of education. Traveling to the King museum in the South, working with the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and reading his speeches in the Library of Congress at summer institute all come into my work in the classroom."

"His greatest influence in my teaching is that I teach my students not to be bystanders who watch as history is being made, but to go out there and embrace the fight for change and social justice," said Angela Edward of Jackson, Michigan. "Social justice is tied to every lesson I teach. He taught me that we should help kids find their voice, and we should let them know that they will decide what injustices our nation will tolerate."

The message was clear: Dr. King's work is unfinished, and the issues he marched for are still affecting your students and you. 

Several of your responses were deeply personal.

"His work has made it possible for me to be a part of the discussion vs. the discussion just being about me," an anonymous educator observed. "As an African American, I can now effect change and be vocal about injustice. I can affect the environments I am a part of. No longer do I have to wait for others to see on their own; I can initiate change and growth."

Another educator remembered, "I was 9 years old when Dr. King was assassinated. His death had a profound effect on me. As a young African-American girl living in the North, I felt very vulnerable after his death. I thought if they could kill Dr. King, then my life was not valuable to the others. I have studied Dr. King's speeches and books as a way to help me find that value. I use his speeches and books to help my students find that same value and meaning to their lives."

 

A common theme in the comments was how Dr. King influenced your own politics and activism. 

"The risks, sacrifices, fears and consequences he took have inspired me to stand for social justice, equality and humane treatment of all, despite the effects it has had on my career and family," one teacher reflected. "Whenever I am fearful or concerned about the potential fallout from my standing up for what is right and just and encouraging students to do the same, I draw on Dr. King's legacy and remember: If not for the sacrifices of Dr. King and others, neither I nor they would live in a society where we have the rights we do have, despite having a long way to go."

 

Aside from Dr. King inspiring you to work for social justice, the most prevalent theme to emerge from the survey was his perseverance.

"Dr. King knew that the issues that concerned him would not be solved with one march or one speech. He worked diligently to influence change over time. As an educator, what we do cannot be solved or taught in one day. We have to teach and advocate for our students every day. It can be exhausting, but it is a necessary part of our jobs and responsibilities," said Lynn Holmes of Abingdon, Maryland.

Nick Gregory of Fenton, Michigan, offered, "I try to channel Dr. King's remarkable persistence when we tackle topics like privilege and bigotry in our classroom. Dr. King's ability to nudge, pull and prod people away from the comfort of their own indifference may be the most lasting part of his legacy."

Melinda Contreras-Byrd of Princeton, New Jersey, simply said, "I am inspired to keep trying."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was committed to education as a tool for addressing social ills. As we observe the 50th anniversary of his assassination, consider these five ways you—as an educator and influencer—can recommit to honoring his legacy: 

  1. Read scholarly books about King and read his speeches and writing beyond "I Have a Dream" or "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." If you haven't already, check out the speech he delivered at Riverside Church in New York, "Beyond Vietnam."
  2. Commit to having conversations that make you feel uncomfortable—and to doing the inner work necessary to prepare for those conversations. 
  3. Interrupt bigotry and bias, everywhere and every time. 
  4. Volunteer in your community with a group or organization that works to advance racial justice. 
  5. Educate yourself on the issues that continue to divide us as a nation. Here are a few places to start: 

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